Tag Archives: Teaching Yoga

The Yoga of Self-Expression

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” -Martha Graham, as quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991) by Agnes de Mille

When I was a little kid, I loved to draw. I could draw lots of kind of funny-looking things: people, flowers, animals. Often there was a joy in the simple expression of putting pencil to paper. As I grew older, however, and began to compare my artistic attempts to others’, I would get frustrated. I could see that what I was doing wasn’t the same, but I didn’t know how to make it “right.”

One particularly upsetting day, I was struggling to draw a person. I tried again and again to draw a nose that made sense- that looked like what I thought a drawing of a nose on a face should look like- but it just wasn’t happening. I was overwhelmed with frustration and maybe even the beginning of a sense of grief that I wasn’t able to live up to what I thought I should be able to do. This is when my mother intervened with a little bit of absolutely brilliant parenting.

She opened one of the many magazines that we had around the house and flipped to a cartoon of some little kids that was part of a frequent column. “Look,” she said. I looked: the children had been drawn with no noses at all. And yet they were still clearly children. They were a different expression of an idea of children, but they were people, and the nose was assumed, or it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter, because suddenly it became clear to me that there were many different ways to draw, to visualize, to convey the idea of something.

My lovely mom in that moment, took on the role of a teacher. Teachers can cultivate our individuality  or (perhaps with the best of intentions) impose someone else’s idea on us. My mother had given me a gift that is still carrying me 30 years later: the knowledge that self-expression is individual, unique, and not better or worse than anyone else’s expression.

Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt stifled by a teacher. Last week, for some reason, I recalled with stunning clarity a picture of a potato that I drew in high school. Well, let me be clear– I had started drawing this potato in my art class, but it wasn’t going very well. My attempts to capture the essence of potato in colored pencil form were failing pretty spectacularly. Our art teacher was a demanding and troubled guy, and the best you could sort of hope for in that class was to be left alone. Sadly, his eye fell on me and the potato art that day. He sat down beside me, took the drawing, and completed it for me. It was a masterpiece. Subtle shading, deep-set eyes and utterly potato-like curves. It could have been promo material for the Idaho Potato Board.

I remember watching him draw my potato, explaining where I’d gone wrong; I remember taking it home and somehow it even ended up framed over my dresser for a time! But every time I looked at it, I felt sad, a little shamed- it wasn’t really mine, and in fact it was a reminder of how I had failed as an artist according to the teacher’s standards.

This memory came to me during a class I was teaching last week, actually. I was watching a group of my students in Warrior 1. Each of them looked different. Their feet were in different places, their knees were more or less bent, their arms were doing slightly different things, and their hips were in varying degrees of proverbial Warrior 1 “square”-ness. And I thought of how, in previous years, I would ask them to place their feet in particular ways, and move their hips into a certain position, and place their arms just so, in an attempt to “get them into the pose.” I’ve attended classes recently that asked the same thing of me. And knowing now what I do about my body, and my students’ bodies, I wouldn’t confine them to exacting specifications. The cues I give to the class at large are much broader and likely to ask them to explore their own range of motion and comfort. My assists or adjustments are becoming more rare- while I love the idea of communicating through touch, I’m more cognizant now of how I may be inadvertently indicating “wrongness” on their part- that I might be sort of metaphorically taking their pen and drawing their potato.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that we are always trying to do the best we can as teachers. I certainly was. It’s simply that with time, I’ve gotten more information- injuries in my body, observation of my students, research from teachers that I respect, and communication with my students.  While I have no interest in taking on the role of a guru, there is an element of power inherent in the word teacher. I believe that entails moral responsibility. For me, it means that I want to empower my students to recognize their own power, grace, and strength within their yoga practice. I want them to learn the value of their own unique expression of creativity in their body.

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How could I do better than to emulate the instinctive wisdom of a mother? To demonstrate to my students that however their creativity presents itself- as artists, as yogis, as human beings- is not only okay, it’s an expression of their luminous, radiant nature and an opportunity to celebrate their singular essential goodness. To me, if a yoga practice is making me feel like I am wrong in any way, I’m happy to hand the pencil back to the teacher and move on.

(Gratitude and love to my wonderful mother, whose love of me and celebration of my life is so complete that she would be proud of me if I lived in a cardboard box down by the river). 

 

 

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Falling From a False Summit: Or, The Less I Think I Know, The Better

The longer I teach and practice yoga and meditation, the less I am sure I know. That being said, I do have some critical questions we can ask ourselves as students, and teachers, to be sure we’re on the right path. 

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This is, perhaps, the largest reason for the remarkable decline in my once-prolific blog posts. At the onset of my teaching career, I felt quite confident in many “truths-” alignment truths, meditation truths, insights I’d reached, etc.

I’m sure I’ve shared this with you before, but one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from my valued meditation instructor Tim Olmsted: “Every insight is a false summit.”

I cringe to think at how many times I’ve confidently asserted some yoga “truth” as a teacher- whether in this blog, or in class- only to discover later that this truth doesn’t work equally well for all bodies.

…which leads me to another one of my favorite pieces of advice from Tim (although he didn’t intend it as such): “The older I get, the less inclined I am to give any advice at all.”

We all have different bodies. Different lifestyles. Different needs for our yoga practice. Why, then, did I ever assume that one instruction would work equally well for an entire class of students?

When we begin our yoga practice, or our practice as a teacher, we have to start somewhere. So we emulate our teachers. As students, many times, we take their suggestions as ultimate truths. As new teachers, we repeat the instructions we heard from our teachers. At this point, we’re like toddlers finding our feet- just beginning to occupy our bodies, or our roles as teachers- and we’re still just learning about these bodies.

Along the way, we start to find “truths,” “insights.” Sometimes an injury leads us to discover that a pattern we’ve been following doesn’t work well; or we attend a workshop where a respected teacher gives an instruction that resonates with us. We have a revelatory experience and feel that suddenly, everything has changed. In my case, I tend to become evangelical about this new, better way of doing things. I can remember many times where I suddenly changed how I was teaching a pose because I was sure THIS NEW WAY was the definitive best way to do it.

Then: the false summit. Looking around class one day, I realized that the instruction I was giving for Virabhadrasana I was great for some newbies, but wasn’t allowing more experienced students to explore a greater range of motion or sensation. On another occasion, having taught Janu Sirsasana with square hips for about a year, I felt a lightbulb coming on over my head as I realized that there might be a benefit to doing it differently for some bodies. In these moments, I recognized that being caught up in a concept I’d taken for an absolute truth was causing me to offer advice that wasn’t helping my students. I felt ashamed of my prior confidence and assertiveness.

There have been times, I’m sure, that I was even aggressive in this way: offering this “truth” as an absolute, telling students that they needed to do a pose in a particular way. I deeply regret these moments. I believe now that forcing students to do a practice in a particular way (even by means of suggested alignment) can squelch their ability to experience the sensations of embodiment that can make the practice transformational. Instead of teaching us to feel and explore our bodies, rote alignment instructions turn it into an intellectual exercise: “Am I doing it right? How am I supposed to do this?” Worse, instructions couched in preventative terms (“engage the core to protect the back,” “align the knee this way to prevent injury”) set up a mentality of fear and divisiveness between the mind and body. For me, this is exactly what I don’t want to do. I want my students to learn to trust, accept, appreciate and eventually love the body they’re using.

So, with regard to group instruction, my verbiage has changed greatly. I’m conscious that what works for one person will not work for another. When addressing the group (unless it’s one that’s quite experienced), I am much more general, and emphasize the quality of exploration and feeling. I’ve found that specific directions offered to a class at large tend to work for very few people.  Ajahn Chah, in his book “A Tree In The Forest,” puts it beautifully:

At times it may seem to some of you that I contradict myself when I teach, but the way I teach is very simple. It is as if I see someone coming down a road he isn’t familiar with but which I have traveled on many times before. I look up and see him about to fall into a hole on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him to go left. Likewise, if I see someone else about to fall into a hole on the left, I call out to him to go right. The instructions are different, but I teach them to travel in the same direction on the same road. I teach them to let go of both extremes and come back to the center where they will arrive at the true Dhamma.

When giving individual instruction, when offering specific suggestions, I try to ascertain what the student really wants and needs. Then, I can encourage experimentation and remind them that what works at one point in the practice will change over time. I have some experience and I can offer ways build strength, gain range of motion, and work one’s way into more intricate postures, if that’s what’s appropriate. What’s more important to me, though, is that I am helping the student to have an embodied experience and to feel good about it. That may not include things that once felt important to me- like those particular nitpicking alignment details.

Keeping in mind that this way of teaching may just be one more false summit, I will add that I know that this way of teaching is not what everyone wants or needs. There were times in my own practice as a student that I would have resented an instruction to explore for myself, and that I craved specific, explicit, detailed alignment direction. But- and this is maybe the crux of the matter- I know now that I wouldn’t feel I were offering a real service to my students with this sort of teaching style. I’m less inclined, as Tim said, to offer advice.

As students, I would suggest that it is important to ask ourselves the following:

  • What do I want from my yoga practice? Is my teacher’s style supporting me in my goal?
  • Do I feel that I “need” or “should” do something particular in my practice? If so, why?
  • Is there one right way for me to do this pose every time?
  • How does my body feel after I practice?
  • How do I feel about myself mentally, emotionally, after I practice?
  • Does my yoga mat feel like a place where I am embodied, alive and aware?

As a teacher, I am continuing to explore and ask myself the following:

  • Is my ego invested in this instruction that I’m giving? (I’ve found that if I’m feeling protective or defensive of a particular instruction, there’s something behind it that has little to do with my students’ experience and more to do with my own)
  • How can I help students to feel good mentally, emtionally  and physically?
  • After I teach, how do I feel? Did I learn anything, and how would I handle it differently next time?
  • When I do have an “insight,” am I allowing myself space to believe that it may be contraindicated for some people?
  • Is what I’m offering as a teacher authentic to my own belief system?
  • Is what I’m offering a service to the students?
  • Am I remembering as often as possible that I may be completely and totally wrong?